Colon Cancer (Colorectal Cancer)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Quick GuideColon Cancer: Symptoms, Signs, Screening, Stages

Colon Cancer: Symptoms, Signs, Screening, Stages

What are colon cancer survival rates?

Survival rates for any cancer are often reported by stage, the extent of spread when the cancer is identified. For colon and rectum cancer, around 39% are diagnosed at the local stage, before the cancer has spread outside the local area. The five-year survival for these patients with localized colon and rectum cancer is 90%.

When the cancer has spread to the regional lymph nodes near the site of origin, the five-year survival rate is about 71%. When the cancer has metastasized to distant sites in the body (stage IV cancer), the five-year survival rate lowers to about 13.5%.

Is it possible to prevent colon cancer?

The most effective prevention for colorectal cancer is early detection and removal of precancerous colorectal polyps before they turn cancerous. Even in cases where cancer has already developed, early detection still significantly improves the chances of a cure by surgically removing the cancer before the disease spreads to other organs.

Regular physical activity is associated with lower risk of colon cancer. Aspirin use also appears to lower the risk of colon cancer. The use of combined estrogen and progestin in hormone replacement therapy lowers the risk of colon cancer in postmenopausal women. Hormone replacement therapy has risks which must be weighed against this effect, and should be discussed with a doctor.

Genetic counseling and testing

Blood tests are now available to test for hereditary colon cancer syndromes. Families with multiple members having colon cancers, multiple colon polyps, cancers at young ages, and other cancers such as cancers of the ureters, uterus, duodenum, and more, may take advantage of resources such as genetic counseling, followed possibly by genetic testing. Genetic testing without prior counseling is discouraged because of the extensive family education that is involved and the complicated nature of interpreting the test results.

The advantages of genetic counseling followed by genetic testing include: (1) identifying family members at high risk of developing colon cancer to begin colonoscopies early; (2) identifying high-risk members so that screening may begin to prevent other cancers such as ultrasound tests for uterine cancer, urine examinations for ureter cancer, and upper endoscopies for stomach and duodenal cancers; and (3) alleviating concern for members who test negative for the hereditary genetic defects.

Diet to prevent colon cancer

People can change their eating habits by reducing fat intake and increasing fiber (roughage) in their diet. Major sources of fat are meat, eggs, dairy products, salad dressings, and oils used in cooking. Fiber is the insoluble, nondigestible part of plant material present in fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain breads and cereals. It is postulated that high fiber in the diet leads to the creation of bulky stools which can rid the intestines of potential carcinogens. In addition, fiber leads to the more rapid transit of fecal material through the intestine, thus allowing less time for a potential carcinogen to react with the intestinal lining.

Screening for colorectal cancer

The term "screening" is properly applied only to the use of testing to look for evidence of cancer or pre-cancerous polyps in individuals who are asymptomatic and at only average risk for a type of cancer. Those patients who, for example, have a positive family history of colon cancer, or are symptomatic for a colon abnormality, undergo diagnostic testing rather than screening tests.

There are different types of screening tests for colorectal cancer: fecal (stool) occult blood testing, sigmoidoscopy, colonoscopy, digital colonoscopy, and DNA testing of the stool. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends strongly that screening begin at age 50 years for average-risk adults, but there is no specific recommendation for one screening test or strategy over another. The USPSTF advises that patients be offered a choice of screening options, using shared decision-making with the patient and physician to arrive at the best choice of screening programs for each individual.

Stool or fecal occult blood testing (FOBT)

Tumors of the colon and rectum tend to bleed slowly into the stool. The small amount of blood mixed into the stool usually is not visible to the naked eye. The commonly used stool occult blood tests rely on chemical color conversions to detect microscopic amounts of blood. These tests are both convenient and inexpensive. There are two kinds of fecal occult blood tests. The first is known as a guaiac FOBT. In this test, a small amount of stool is smeared on a special card for occult blood testing when a chemical is added to the card. Usually, three consecutive stool cards are collected. The other type of FOBT is an immunochemical test in which a special solution is added to the stool sample and analyzed in the laboratory using antibodies that can detect blood in a stool sample. The immunochemical test is a quantitative test that is more sensitive and specific for the diagnosis of polyps and cancer. It is preferred over the guaiac test.

A person who tests positive for stool occult blood has a 30%-45% chance of having a colon polyp and a 3%-5% chance of having a colon cancer. Colon cancers found under these circumstances tend to be small and not to have spread and have a better long-term prognosis.

It is important to remember that having stool tested positive for occult blood does not necessarily mean a person has colon cancer. Many other conditions can cause occult blood in the stool. However, patients with a positive stool occult blood test should undergo further evaluations to exclude colon cancer and to explain the source of the bleeding. It is also important to realize that stool that has tested negative for occult blood does not mean that colorectal cancer or polyps do not exist. Even under ideal testing conditions, a significant percentage of colon cancers can be missed by stool occult blood screening. Many patients with colon polyps do not have positive stool occult blood. In patients suspected of having colorectal polyps and in those at higher risk for developing colorectal polyps and cancer, screening flexible sigmoidoscopies or colonoscopies are performed even if the FOBT is negative.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy

Flexible sigmoidoscopy is an exam of the rectum and the lower colon (60 cm or about 2 feet in from the outside) using a viewing tube (a short version of colonoscopy). Research studies have shown that the use of screening flexible sigmoidoscopy can reduce mortality from colon cancer. This is a result of the detection of polyps or early cancers in people with no symptoms. If a polyp or cancer is found, a complete colonoscopy is recommended. The majority of colon polyps can be completely removed at the time of colonoscopy without surgery; however, polyps in the proximal colon that cannot be reached by the sigmoidoscope will be missed. Flexible sigmoidoscopy is often combined with fecal occult blood testing for colorectal cancer screening.

Colonoscopy uses a long (120 cm-150 cm) flexible tube, which can examine the entire length of the colon. Through this tube, the doctor (typically a gastroenterologist) can both view and take pictures of the entire colon and also can take biopsies of colon masses and remove polyps.

Patients with a high risk of developing colorectal cancer may undergo screening colonoscopies starting at earlier ages than 50. For example, patients with a family history of colon cancer are recommended to start screening colonoscopies at an age 10 years before the earliest colon cancer diagnosed in a first-degree relative or five years earlier than the earliest precancerous colon polyp discovered in a first-degree relative. Patients with hereditary colon cancer syndromes such as FAP, AFAP, HNPCC, and MYH are recommended to begin colonoscopies early. The recommendations differ depending on the genetic defect. For example, in people with FAP, colonoscopies may begin during teenage years to look for the development of colon polyps. Patients with a prior history of polyps or colon cancer may also undergo colonoscopies to exclude recurrence. Patients with a long history (greater than 10 years) of chronic ulcerative colitis have an increased risk of colon cancer and should have regular colonoscopies to look for precancerous changes in the colon lining.

Virtual colonoscopy

Virtual colonoscopy (computerized tomographic or CT colonography) has been utilized in the clinic as a screening technique for colorectal cancer. Virtual colonoscopy employs a CT scan using low doses of radiation with special software to visualize the inside of the colon and look for polyps or masses. The procedure typically involves a bowel preparation with laxatives and/or enemas (although not always) followed by a CT scan after air is introduced into the colon. Because no sedation is necessary, individuals can return to work or other activities upon completion of the test. Virtual colonoscopies appear to be equally able to detect larger polyps (over 1 centimeter in size) as regular colonoscopies. The virtual colonoscopy cannot be used to biopsy or remove tissue from the colon. A follow-up sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy must be done to accomplish that.

Stool DNA testing

The Cologuard test is available in the U.S. for in-home sample collection for adults over 50 at average risk for colon cancer. The sample is sent to a laboratory for analysis of DNA changes in DNA from cells shed by the intestinal lining into the stool or hemoglobin in the sample. In a research study, the test was able to find 92% of colon cancers and 69% of precancers of the colon. False-negative and false-positive results are also possible.

REFERENCES:

Imperiale, T.F., D.F. Ransohoff, S.H. Itzkowitz, et al. "Multitarget stool DNA testing for colorectal-cancer screening." N Engl J Med 370.14 (2014): 1987-97.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Colorectal cancer." Mar. 23, 2017. <https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/colorectal/>.

United States. National Cancer Institute. "Colorectal cancer." <https://www.cancer.gov/types/colorectal>.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 4/3/2017

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